Would you buy a used car from this governor?

November 22, 1987

By Burr Snider
San Francisco Examiner

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Doonesbury has mocked him unmercifully for his racial insensitivity; Arizona Congressman Morris Udall calls the situation he’s created here a “circus Maximus”; and the gay conservative head of the recall movement that hopes to remove him from office says he is “a Neanderthal who breeds paranoia and is a tragedy for this state.”

used200He, of course, is Evan Mecham, the Phoenix car dealer and perennial right-wing fringe political candidate who pulled off a surprise upset victory last year to become the governor of the fastest-growing state in America. He’s managed to keep Arizona in a state of constant, embarrassing turmoil ever since.

“He’s got the whole country laughing at Arizona, and you just can’t have that and attract the kind of new business you need,” says Morris Udall, a veteran of 26 years in Congress. “He’s damaged our image — how bad is hard to tell. He is a smug and stubborn man who is never wrong — everything that goes wrong is always someone else’s fault — and he is simply not the guy to guide the state through this tremendous growth period.”

Udall, who characterizes Mecham’s following as “the fanatical right-wing,” says that the real disrnay the governor has caused in the state is not to the liberal Democrats such as himself, but “to Barry Goldwater and the whole Republican establishment. It’s the old syndrome of the right wing hating moderate Republicans more than they do liberal Democrats. I‘ve never seen anything like this recall movement. It‘s a measure of how really far out of the mainstream of Arizona politics he is.”

For starters there was Mecham‘s infamous inaugural speech, in which he announced that he would rescind a paid holiday for state workers in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King. Never mind that Mecham’s predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, had been warned by the state attorney general against declaring the holiday (only the Legislature can do that), it was Mecham’s inflexible, self-righteous handling of the matter that infuriated minorities and made national headlines.

“When the black community leaders went to him to try to reason on this issue he treated us like he was a paternalistic grandparent who was straightening us out,” says the Rev. Warren Stewart Sr., pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church here. “He said his mind was made up, that he was acting on principle. He said publicly that Dr. King was not worthy of a holiday.”

To add insult to injury, Mecham (pronounced Meekum) soon thereafter publicly used the word “pickaninny,” insisting that he always had viewed it as a term of affection. “This state is not fundamentally racist,” says Stewart, “but Mecham has a racist mentality.”

Then there were some of his more notorious appointments to state office. The man he chose as his educational adviser told a legislative committee that “if a student wants to say the world is flat, the teacher doesn’t have the right to prove otherwise.” One of his appointees to the state Board of Education declared that working women cause divorce and the women’s rights movement promotes lesbianism. His appointment as chief state investigator didn’t report some prior legal scrapes when applying for a private investigator’s’ license and was forced to withdraw, and the man he picked to head the state‘s self-insurance program bowed out after it was disclosed that his insurance license had been revoked.

A self-styled maverick who prides himself on always speaking his mind regardless of the consequences, Mecham quickly proved to be a font of inflammatory rhetoric. On one occasion, he stated publicly that “the United States may have a little too much democracy,” and on another that homosexuals do not have the civil rights of other people. When informed on a talk show that many gays were employees of the state, he demanded a list.

But to his loyal base constituency, this stuff played well. Mecham is a Mormon in a state whose population includes nearly a quarter-million Mormons, and he is a Birch-style conservative (although he denies ever holding membership in the organization) in a frontier milieu where the virtues of self-reliance are held dear and the slightest government intrusion is viewed as galloping socialism.

“Ev Mecham, by his own admission is not a diplomat — he’s direct, and he says it the way it is and people know that,” says Don Ruzicka, a Phoenix insurance man who helped found Concerned Arizona Voters, an anti-recall group.

“The governor has a very wide base of support in Arizona that is not reported by the media, and he’s accomplished more in 10 months than his predecessor did in eight years,” says Ruzicka. “Within two weeks of taking office he balanced the budget without raising taxes. I’m not blind to the facts, but people have made very serious allegations about him, none of which are true. What’s damaging the state is not Mecham, but the whole recall movement.”

Led by a mercurial young Republican Phoenix businessman named Ed Buck, who happens to be homosexual, the recall movement, which at last report had 388,988 signatures, was formed soon after Mecham took office.

At first, says Buck,’it was a solitary, quixotic crusade. “At the beginning it was quite lonely doing the recall work; worse than lonely, it was psychological terrorism. The Mecham people wanted to get the emphasis off the governor and onto Ed Buck, to expose to the world that I was a homosexual and unfit to recall a moral man like Ev Mecham. I’ve never particularly been in the closet, but I’ve never been in banner headlines either. But I was impelled by the realization that this man was not going to represent any Arizonans who did not share his narrow views, and that kept me going. People say that Mecham only looks bad compared to Bruce Babbitt, who was a popular governor. But this man is terrible all by himself.”

It didn’t help the recall either when Buck was caught trying to buy painkillers with a photocopied prescription. The governor’s press secretary gleefully announced his arrest to the press, but Buck agreed in court “to pee in a jar for a year” and the issue was somewhat defused.

The recall movement picked up steam as Mecham continued to make headlines with his freewheeling utterances and his uncompromising, antediluvian approach to government. For example, at a time when Arizona was desperately trying to attract high-tech industry to the state, the governor was methodically slashing the research budget for the universities.

“We’d had some success in bringing this kind of industry to the state and now this guy goes before the board of regents and says he wants to get those professors out of the laboratory and back in the classroom,” Udall says. “He said there was too much research and he wanted to cut down money allocated for it.”

Still, in spite of the national ignominy the governor was garnering for the state, the mainstream politicians and establishment press distanced themselves from the recall. Then last summer, John Kolbe, a writer for the Phoenix Gazette, uncovered an attempt by Mecham to “strong-arm” a legislative committee into hiring one of his cronies to lobby for the Supercollider. Mecham called Kolbe a liar, but four of the five members of the committee confirmed the reporter’s version of the story, and sentiment started to move rapidly against the governor.

The Republicans attempted to muzzle Mecham, but he kept popping off in public, and on at least one occasion, when questioned about his various explanations of a strident letter in which he called the recall people “militant homosexuals and dissident Democrats,” he blew up so totally at a reporter on television that many said he had lost control.

By October, according to a newspaper poll, more than half of Arizona’s voters were calling for Mecham’s ouster, and when Barry Goldwater, the grand old man of the conservative movement (who had supported Mecham for governor) called for his resignation, the governor’s conservative base began crumbling radically.

“My feeling is that since nobody ever seriously thought he’d be elected, nobody ever really scrutinized him carefully,” says Kolbe. “One-third of the electorate wasn’t even here in 1980 and people have short memories anyway. In the campaign here was Goldwater, Mr. Republican himself, making a commercial for Mecham, saying, ‘He’s a good, solid Republican; he’s one of us,’ and then not many months later he’s calling for Mecham’s resignation. That made a big impact.”

Also hurting Mecham’s cause was his confidence in his own ability to handle the press. “What it really was was the auto dealer’s mentality,” Kolbe says. “He believed he could tell you what you
wanted to hear to get you to drive it off the lot. His first press secretary had no experience or ability and they just let Ev loose. Finally they learned their lesson and stopped having press conferences, but reporters would still ambush him, and you never knew what he was going to say.”

Then, earlier this month, the Arizona Republic broke a story about a $350,000 campaign loan (amounting to one-third of the candidate’s total budget) that Mecham had received from a developer named Barry Wolfson. Mecham allegedly had attempted to conceal the loan by lumping it together with several that he himself had made to the campaign. Mecham insisted there was no criminal intent or attempt at secrecy, but a furor of indignation erupted around the state.

Last Monday night the governor went on television to try to explain his actions. He read a prepared statement professing his innocence (he had filed amended campaign records reflecting the loan that afternoon), and was convincing. But when the moderator began delving into the fact that Mecham had promised Wolfson confidentiality in the matter, the governor’s dogged insistence on the purity of the transaction began to lose resonance.

Many Arizonans, including Udall, remain convinced that Mecham’s actions were a willful violation of state law. A grand jury subpoenaed the governor immediately after the TV show, and a movement has now begun to grow among lawmakers for impeachment.

“There is more to this than meets the eye,” says Joe Lane,“ the Republican speaker of the Arizona House. “I’ve been against the recall because it’s very divisive and? expensive and it’s not doing the state any good. I don’t think there have ever been any substantial grounds for recall, but I’m now not as.supportive of the governor either, and there might be grounds for impeachment. We have hired a special counsel to advise us in this regard.”

Much of the smart money in Arizona is betting that Mecham is finally finished after 30 years of promulgating his esoteric, reactionary brand of politics. “Within 30 days Mecham will either be impeached, recalled or convicted on these current charges,” Udall says.

But others are skeptical. “He’s a resilient little character and I don’t want to count him out,” says Alan Stephens, the Democratic state Senate minority leader.

“He’s still very much alive. His lawyers are trying to get the attorney general, who is a fellow conservative Republican, to disqualify himself from the case, and he can string that out for a long time. The Legislature won’t get around to impeachment for a while, and it’s going to be a long and bloody process. The state has lost countless millions of dollars of business because of this, and I think we’re going to learn just how far a state government can unravel in less than a year. As a result of Mecham, Arizona is is in paralysis and we will live with the results of that for a long time.”